I have, over the past weeks and months, made an increasing number of minor mistakes, and contributed rambling, nonsensical ideas to any number of projects. One of the more recent examples of this was that I misspelled the subject line of a big marketing email. After sending out a correction, I received a text from a friend checking in. I responded, “Mistakes happen. And we’re all ok.” Another situation happened in a strategic planning meeting a few weeks ago, where I stopped talking mid-sentence having completely lost the thread of my thoughts. It then came back to me moments later only to escape me again as I jumped back into the conversation.
I’ve come to expect these slips and missteps now, as part of what it means to make it through the days, and I’ve been sitting for a while with this sense of being ok. What it implies and what it means. I find myself responding to the now-impossible question “How are you?” both with an explanation of how hard everything feels and how, at the same time on a macro level, I am well and truly ok.
In a moment where we take meetings in our bedrooms, children indiscriminately interrupt conversations with students and funders, and we’re expected to keep on keeping on despite the collective trauma we’re living through, sharing our imperfections and our missteps with each other is a way to visibilize the reality of how not ok everything is. And given the ways in which I am privileged in this moment, when suffering and hardship from the pandemic and uprising abound, as we enter the final sprint towards an election that so much is wrapped up in, I am caught in the tension between wanting to do so much more and wanting to stop everything so I can replenish.
The need for radical change, on the local, national, and even global levels, feels more pressing than ever, and several times a day I think of new ways that I can work to support it. In my mind, I’ve sketched out plans for a mobile library for the local public schools, designed a daily resiliency practice, started a food vendor training program, written postcards and called government officials, and supported grassroots organizers and movements. These ideas remain squarely in my mind, as the reality has been that for the past six months I’ve only been able to move forward the most mundane tasks. I call it a win if I’m able to get to anything important, let alone self-nourishing, once in a long while. So, how do we bridge the gap between obligation and action, between what we wish we were doing and what we’re able to get done?
Rabbi Tarfon, in his famous quote from Pirkei Avot, offers a frame for this question:
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה
He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to hold back from it.
Years ago, I taught this text to middle schoolers in Hebrew School, and I framed it as a call to do your best. “Don’t give up!” I encouraged them. “It’s ok to feel stuck but you have to keep trying.” It’s a fine read, if not especially nuanced.
In our Mishnah Collective, we recently learned the same text and SVARA Fellow Elaina Marshalek teased out this question in her follow-up teaching: “What is the work that none of us will ever be able to finish? Perhaps if we know that it will be a lifelong struggle, and that we’re going to be in it for the long haul, we will be more able to be patient with ourselves, and to breathe in the process.” I love the spaciousness this question offers, the invitation to be present with the tension and the recognition of the bigness of change work.
Rabbi Tarfon, in setting up this framework, opens up our ability to get much more focused about the way our individual actions contribute to that of a collective. He offers us space to break down a task, a project, and even a seemingly insurmountable societal challenge, and hone in on the pieces which we’re uniquely best situated to hold. We still have an obligation to do the work, but we don’t have to carry the burden on our own. This notion of clearly delineated responsibility shows up throughout our lives, personally and professionally, but while I’m used to thinking about it in the context of mapping organizational charts and developing visions, it feels new to use this lens in thinking about how my actions contribute to the radical change our world needs. There’s something incredibly freeing about giving myself permission to hold my piece—fiercely and fully—and then trust that there are other people doing the same that can help us live into this tension.
Adrienne Maree Brown offers another version of this sentiment in her book, Emergent Strategy: “E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G—is connected…Organizing takes humility and selflessness and patience and rhythm while our ultimate goal of liberation will take many expert components. Some of us build and fight for land, healthy bodies, healthy relationships, clean air, water, homes, safety, dignity, and humanizing education. Others of us fight for food and political prisoners and abolition and environmental justice. Our work is intersectional and multifaceted. Nature teaches us that our work has to be nuanced and steadfast. And more than anything, that we need each other—at our highest natural glory—in order to get free.” The work of this moment isn’t actually a sprint, though the stakes feel higher than ever before in my lifetime. This is a marathon, or a relay race, that we’re in for the long-haul, one that we are running together, each picking up the baton from the other as we’re able or suited to.
Like many people, I tend to focus on the things I’m not doing, the mistakes I’ve made, and the distance between what I think I should be able to accomplish and what I can actually do. There’s plenty there to focus on. And, I also know that I can’t be present and action-oriented when I’m stuck in the cycle of how I could do better. Taking time to replenish myself, taking stock of how I can plug in, and where I can uniquely make a difference is a meaningful practice. It allows me to zoom out and see the long arc of change-making, to let go of the work I’m not doing and commit to the places where I am contributing. It’s not easy to make that space. And making that space doesn’t mean that I’m not committed to the work. It’s not permission to leave it to others who have more time, or means, or energy to take up my pieces. Rather, it is exactly the humbling process of making mistakes and hitting up against my capacity that reminds me we are all in this together. And that I will continue to do my best, and trust that all of y’all will do the same, to push the work forward in the spirit of bringing about positive change in the world.